The video game of 2022 so far: ‘Norco,’ a masterpiece of interactive storytelling

The first time we see Norco, La., in all its pixelated glory, it’s in an image that frames smokestacks and refinery equipment like a mechanical city. We’re told there’s a hum — an “endless sigh” — and we see a soft glow that cancels out the sun and the moon so its residents see only a translucent sky. That horizon, we read in a rush of an intro, is all projected flames, implying the land and the people below are living out their lives as a slow burn.

Welcome to a part of America known as “Cancer Alley.” And then “Norco” gets weird.

The game is at once familiar and outlandish, a text-and-art-driven interactive adventure with a sci-fi bent. But this is not so much the future as it is an alternate reality. “Norco” paints the picture of a dying America, where the rich dream of privatized space flight and apps turn the talent-lite into niche celebrities. Sound familiar? Don’t despair. “Norco’s” world is enticing — one that is, yes, full of web-driven conspiracies and nut jobs, but is also the sort of crash we can’t look away from.

In part, that’s because “Norco” makes us smile with wonder. “Norco” is our world, just slightly altered. It’s also the best game released thus far in 2022.

Moments after being introduced to the dead-end oil town, the game gets underway with us controlling an adult woman named Kay, who has returned to her childhood bedroom after a family tragedy. A stuffed monkey sits next to a laptop, where her brother is hanging out on internet message boards that he should probably leave unexplored. The inanimate monkey challenges us to a staring contest, and after we distract ourselves with a simple mini game of trying to match the placement of a pair of circles, we accept the dare and lose the bout to the plushie.

The tone, however, is set.

For the next few hours “Norco” takes us on a journey into a melancholic world full of imaginative amazement. We meet a giant bird with head-sized teeth. We briefly interact with a crocodile who goes on a revenge mission, via a puppet show, against a man who tried to take him as a pet. And we witness a world rattled by climate change, where the robots will outlive us, but they, too, are straddled with ennui, spending hours in stasis “like any discarded thing would.”

A drive with a robot in “Norco.”

(Geography of Robots / Raw Fury)

“Norco’s” magical realism is at once patient and relentless. Each scene is a pixelated canvas — the sort of work of art that modern Redditors go crazy over — and filled with mysteries to uncover. We want to linger with them as badly as we want to scour them for clues that will send this narrative into hyperdrive.

But our mission is constantly detoured by curiosities, narrative twists or clever writing. Little details about: A traveling companion listens only to Christmas music. A bar filled with white kids culturally appropriating Black dances sits in a “subcultural estuary, only one change of ownership from becoming an upscale wine bar.” And early on, we can read a book that details how New Orleans can be reimagined as a live-action role-playing game for those who love disasters.

Family mysteries drive the story of “Norco,” but often they can wait. Like a less frantic “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which is also looking for signs of life and compassion amid alternative takes on reality, asides can be found at every narrative turn. A cat, for instance, challenges us to a memory game just to earn a pet, with eyes that turn into hearts if we win the right to scratch it. Then there’s the hot dog stand that knows all the not-so-secret knocks peppered around New Orleans, and the Silver Lake-based film team that believes you when you tell them that, in the South, they would absolutely refer to someone evil as to “crawfish devil.”

“Norco’s” mode is dark but not foreboding — “Blade Runner’s” yearning for hope feels like an influence, as does the cryptic and at times spectral trappings of fellow game “Kentucky Route Zero.” Both are meditations on American class and kookiness, and making sense of a world that aims to confuse. Like in “Kentucky Route Zero,” we spend our time in “Norco” with those living on the outskirts of society, only in this vision, there is no longer any center worth clamoring toward.

Here, the town detective has juicy tales to tell, but he also can’t be bothered to investigate if nature calls. There may be aliens, but those mysterious flying structures could also just be gases taking flight from the poisoned Mississippi River. Hard to say, but political and religious extremists will become darlings of social media by creating a conspiracy around them. Who, after all, wants to deal with reality and all its complexities, formalities and paperwork, especially when the upper class views an increasingly uninhabitable Earth as a playground?

Our surrogate, Kay, is a young woman who ran away from her southern Louisiana home to live as a vagabond. Kay has already ventured throughout the Midwest, Southwest and West when we meet her, finding a world where war exists for meme-making and the internet, and the lies and schemes it props up have become such a nuisance to the advancement of society that there’s a growing movement to rip up cell towers and destroy databanks. Kay tosses her phone into the Rio Grande before returning to Louisiana to care for her lost soul of a younger brother after her mother de ella has died of cancer.

Only he’s missing. “Norco” in its opening hours — expect the game to take somewhere around 10 hours to complete — toys with players as to what kind of game it will become. A detective adventure in which we track down our sibling? Maybe, but we soon learn our mother was caught up in questionable plots before she perished. Her home de ella, for instance, was ransacked by Shield Oil, a not-so-subtle stand-in for Shell Oil, after her death de ella, and we want to know what the firm is after. It’s implied that it’s something rotten — or mystical — in the river, and suddenly “Norco” becomes something of a heist game.

But we also encounter cults that believe in the supernatural, one led by kids who look like they’re playing a game of “Stranger Things.” Their leader, it’s implied, is some sort of social media star, but we know he’s little more than a suburban brat who just happened to read a few philosophy books. He and his followers of him have taken residence in a deserted suburban mall, where towering statues to oil now become visions of escape to other planets, and recruitment is completed via an in-game augmented reality app. Apps rule society in “Norco” and are the key to getting in almost anywhere, including a city hall after hours where even the politicians are smitten with the conspiracy theorists.

A pair of eyes in the sky overlooking smokestacks, with dialogue on the left-hand side of the screen.

“Norco” is a celebration of old-school text adventure games.

(Geography of Robots / Raw Fury)

Throughout, we go back and forth in time, playing as Kay or her mother, Catherine. For all the game throws at us in terms of unhinged theories in an attempt to explain depressing realities, we are never lost. “Norco” has cleverly created what it calls a “mindmap,” a sort of family tree of every key person or place we meet in the game. We can visit Kay’s mindmap anytime and devour her past de ella and plot her future de ella as if we are flipping through pages of an irresistible book. There’s lots of text here, combined with some light inventory-based puzzles — fans of, say, “The Secret of Monkey Island” or “Kentucky Route Zero” will be right at home — but “Norco” also presents us with interactive twists.

When, for instance, we have to penetrate the Shield Oil compound, we must complete a series of mini games. Sometimes we fight robots via matching tiles, and sometimes we must rearrange security drones by finding a computer that has hacked into the oil company, which remains on a former plantation site. We’re given a limited number of “moves” to rearrange the drones on a digital map before we’re discovered by Shield security. But “Norco,” developed for home computers by a small collective known as Geography of Robots — the lead designer goes only by Yuts and is an accomplished pixel artist — should be approachable to all skill levels.

Throughout, we see glimpses of gratuitous parties, learn of racial and class divides, and see the desperate get swindled by tech companies who promise the ability to upload memories. Suburban New Orleans, as written by the game, is painted as a series of “drive-thru chicken, car audio, mattresses direct to you, water towers and powerlines and crumbling concrete and traffic signs, abortive landscaping attempts.”

In this familiar setting, “Norco” finds mystery, giving us a lead character in Kay who wanted to escape her hometown. She couldn’t, and “Norco” turns the place into a modern enigma, one we as players don’t want to leave. We ourselves become “disaster tourists” in a vision of America that’s downtrodden, allegorical and just the right amount of unearthly.

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